First Women in the CIVIL WAR

Continuing in the celebration of National Women’s History Month, here is a trio of women’s firsts from the Civil War era.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.36.30 AMAmong the First Women To. . .in the Civil War are a combatant, a doctor, and an orator. All three defied the gender designations of their time and one exceeded expectations for her race we well.

The orator was Ana Elizabeth Dickinson. Renowned for her abolitionist speeches, she was the first woman to speak before Congress. Her activism began at age thirteen when she wrote an essay for The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper in Boston. Because the Quakers did not dissuade women from speaking in public, she used their platform for her speeches. In 1861, eight hundred Philadelphians paid to hear her speak on the topic of “The Rights and Wrongs of Women.” By the time she spoke in New York, five thousand attended her speech.

She could “hold her audience spellbound for as much as two hours.” Eventually she averaged a speech every other day and earned $20,000 annually, a magnificent sum in that day. When the Republic leadership in Congress invited her to speak in 1864, the president joined military and civilian leaders in the congressional gallery to hear her speak.

The most famous of this trio is Harriet Tubman, the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War. Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman, originally Araminta Harriet Ross, escaped into Pennsylvania. “When I found I had crossed that line,” she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

The experience was so transforming that she resolved to free other slaves and led hundreds north as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. During the war she served as a cook and nurse, then as a scout and spy for the Union Army. The Combahee River Raid, which she led, liberated more than 700 slaves. When she died she was buried with military honors.

Because of her service in the Civil War, Mary Walker was the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. As a doctor, she served on the battlefield in tent hospitals and was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. When she crossed enemy lines to treat soldiers on the other side, the South arrested her as a spy and made her a prisoner of war. Released after nine months, she returned to the battlefield and served in the Ohio 52nd Infantry, where she provided care for women prisoners.

In 1917 Congress changed the rules for awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor and rescinded Mary Walkers’ medal. She continued to wear it for the remaining two years of her life and President Jimmy Carter restored the award posthumously in 1977. She is still the only woman to have received this award.

Sally Ride – Astronaut

          Today there is serious discussion about the importance of STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)for our nation’s economy, and also about how to make these fields attractive to women. Sally Ride was ahead of the curve.

     SALLY RIDE 1 FOR DRAFT BLOG 4     American space travel in the last half of the twentieth century is filled with firsts: the first to go into space, the first to circumnavigate the globe, the first to land on the moon, but all these firsts were accomplished by men. Even though women trained alongside men in the early U.S. space program, it was determined (without any scientific evidence to support the contention) that women were not suited for space travel and they were eliminated from astronaut training. This was not true in Russia where the first man into space, Yuri Gugarin, orbited the earth in 1961 and Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space two years later. In the United States the first man into space made a suborbital flight a few weeks after the first Russian man, but it was another seventeen years before Sally Ride was admitted to astronaut training and twenty-two years before Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space.

When she was young, Sally Ride thought she might pursue a career in tennis since she was nationally ranked as a junior, but her studies at Stanford changed her mind. After earning a double major in English and Physics, she decided to pursue a career in Physics and earned a doctorate. It was in the Stanford newspaper that she saw the advertisement soliciting applicants to the space program and she was one of 8,000 people who applied. On June 18, 1983, she was launched into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Her second flight was the first with a five-person crew and the first with two women crewmembers.

She was preparing for her third flight when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all onboard, including Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space. All flights were cancelled and Dr. Ride served as a member of the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident.

When she left NASA, Dr. Ride became director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, and a professor of Physics. She inspires girls and young women to study science and math through Sally Ride Science, an organization she founded and served as president and CEO. President Obama awarded her with the Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian in our country. It was presented to her family the year after she died.


Read the Mashable editorial by Amanda Willis on why we need to focus on more than the fact that Sally Ride was the First Woman To. . .:

For a bio and video about Sally Ride’s thoughts on being the First Woman To. . .:

Sally Ride’s official NASA bio:

There are a number of book-length biographies of Sally Ride, most of them written by women.


Were you encouraged to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects or pushed to more “traditional” fields for women?